Screen: Wednesday, July 2, 2003
By Brakhage
Available thruthe Criterion Collection at www.criterionco.com or can be ordered by most major DVD retailers.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Dog Star Man

A new two-DVD set on and by Stan Brakhage captures 26 of his most hallucinatory shorts.

By JIMMY FOWLER

Filmmaker Stan Brakhage died in March at the age of 70, an artist who’d achieved that unfortunate status of being more discussed than viewed. He created nearly 400 films over five decades, with only an occasional public retrospective at museums and film fests around the world (the last was completed a little more than a year before he succumbed to bladder cancer). His life’s work and his death were not unrelated. Doctors surmised that one of Brakhage’s signature artistic innovations — the hand-application of colored dyes to the surface of the celluloid strip — probably caused an internal accumulation of carcinogenic coal tars over the decades.

His final project was supervising the superb new two-DVD set from Criterion Collection called By Brakhage. The 26 short films here, most shot on 16mm without sound, are his sometimes somber, sometimes frenetic attempts to make viewers reevaluate both the act of looking and how they take meaning from what they see. He believed that people are so encumbered by experiences and expectations once they reach adulthood that they think about things more than they actually see them. Brakhage wanted to clear all the rational static with colorful montages of birth, death, celestial phenomena, and holy iconography that are as close to the dream state as anyone has captured on film.

The man loathed adjectives like “experimental” and “abstract”; he called his films “personal expressions.” He reached the apex of his fame, such as it was, in the late 1960s alongside contemporaries like Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol (both of whom embraced the term “experimental”). Their work was clearly influenced by popular narrative movies, and so their films were more literal — and far more commercially successful. Anger entertained viewers by dragging the homoerotic subtext of ’50s biker films to the forefront in Scorpio Rising. Warhol hoodwinked the uptown crowds with Blow Job, a 30-minute, single-take close-up recording the facial expressions of a young man receiving the titular service.

All this was matinee fodder by Brakhage’s standards. He thought storytelling — even the nontraditional kind — was best achieved by live theater and literature. Filmmaking was all about making pictures frame by frame — in some cases, with the addition of paint, artful scratches, and transparent objects like moth wings — and connecting them into an expressionistic whole. There is an urge while watching By Brakhage to concentrate so hard in a search for meaning that you wind up missing the images — and the point. He wanted you to relax, simply observe what you were looking at, and let your own impressions float naturally to the surface. Actually, he said he wasn’t too concerned with how an audience “interpreted” his work. He was fascinated by the infant mind and its preverbal imagination, and in an interview segment on the DVD, he reads from one of his many books: “How many colors in the grass are there to the crawling baby unaware of what ‘green’ means?”

By Brakhage offers brief voice-over discussions by the artist of each film, and they are far more entertaining and illuminating than the windy eight-page essay by Brakhage scholar Fred Camper. Any description of his movies naturally trivializes them. Although Brakhage admitted to being “a frustrated poet,” language is anathema to his juxtaposition of images that crackle with the fire of the subconscious. The epic Dog Star Man, included in the National Film Registry, features an arduous hike up a steep Colorado mountain by Brakhage and his hound to cut down a dead tree. Solar eruptions, stained-glass cathedral windows, and the filmed births of several of the artist’s children are intercut along the journey. Wedlock House is an unsettling look at newlywed sex inside a shadowy, cramped apartment; the only sources of light are a candle flame and a swinging overhead lamp reminiscent of the cellar bulb that introduced Norman Bates’ mother at the climax of Psycho. Kindering features light- and lens-distorted footage of Brakhage’s grandchildren on a backyard swing set; the kids and their surroundings appear to glow with white fire, while a little girl hums a weird, lonely lullaby in spooky counterpoint to the merriment.

So what is Criterion’s intended audience for a rarefied collection like By Brakhage? Certainly, this is a must for devotees of 20th-century painting and film and perhaps also neurologists who study the interrelationship of the eyes and brain. (“The eyeballs are so close, I think you can call them the surface of the brain,” Brakhage asserts on the DVD). A third, and perhaps more obvious, group is college students who use Brakhage’s works as a sincere excuse to down some hallucinogens and hit the clouds. These trippers may or may not find the experience enhanced; most of the filmmaker’s images fly by too fast to be savored in a chemically altered state. Indeed, clarity of mind allows you to see the subtle connective tissue that makes most of By Brakhage more resonant than the chaos and pretension most people associate with “experimental” movies. The three-part harmony of blood cells rushing through veins, headlights bobbing along night-time roads, and icy streams coursing between Colorado mountains in Dog Star Man is rendered obvious beyond words. That’s all the plot you need, to be moved by Brakhage’s majestic world view.



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